When was the last time you were in a record store? It even sounds sort of strange, doesn’t it? Have you been into a video store recently? In our area, there isn’t a record store in sight, but there’s still a small Blockbuster a few miles from the house. We rarely use it because we subscribe to Netflix which, for a reasonable price, mails a couple of DVDs a month right to our house.
Wikipedia has an extensive list of retailers who have gone bust recently, some who couldn’t make it because of the faltering economy, others who were overcome by developing technology. Will bookstores follow suit and go the way of the Dodo bird?
When Borders Books went belly up last year, it followed in the tracks of some of my favorite stores – Circuit City, Linens N Things, and Hollywood Video. Borders was a 40-year-old chain that popularized the big bookstore concept, and when it went bust, it left a lot of publishers holding the bag and ultimately left one main player in the bookstore chain game: Barnes and Noble. For writers, this means that if your book doesn’t get picked up by B&N – there’s only so much space shelf, after all – it impacts your sales.
Recently, there was an interesting story about a 70-year-old writer, Kate Alcott, who wrote a novel called The Dressmaker. The book was submitted to publishers by her agent, and was rejected about a dozen times, with references to the less than stellar sales of her previous book, which Bookscan dutifully reported. This outfit, Bookscan, is no writer’s friend. Because of Alcott’s Bookscan stats, her agent suggested submitting The Dressmaker to publishers under a pseudonym. And because the pseudonymous author had no Bookscan history, no sales history, it sold for high five figures.
For quite a while, Alcott kept up the pretense with her publisher about her fake name, her fake life; her editor thought she was the fictional writer Alcott had created. Eventually, of course, the truth came out, it usually does, and friends who have read the novel love it.
My point here, I think, is that writing, which is usually associated with the arts, is big business. It’s Capitalism with some a giant C. The publishing industry, bookstores, and movie spinoffs on novels: they all begin with writers. Writers are the storytellers, the ones who used to be the oral historians, the ones who sat around campfires in the stone age, who performed for royalty during the Renaissance, who sit in front of computers now.
Yet, writers are often the last to know what’s going on. What’s the print run for my current book? Why is my cover awful? What’s the publisher doing for my book? What do I need to do? The exception here is simple: the bestsellers that makes the NY Times list. You know their names, they don’t change much: King, Koontz, Roberts, Collins, Rowling… A roll call of the rich, the famous, and the best storytellers around. But all of them started at the bottom.
I can’t imagine a world without physical bookstores, can’t imagine not walking into such a place and smelling the books, touching them, picking them up. But I think the day is coming and that it’s coming fast, when bookstores become extinct. Just as record stores are a memory for me now, I suspect bookstores will be such a memory not so far into the future. Maybe only libraries will have actual physical books. Digital books save a lot of trees, you get them instantly. And more and more people are buying Kindle, Nooks, iPads, and bookstores and publishers are scrambling to catch up to…well, whatever this is.
Paradigm shift, anyone?